Feb
17
2011

An Enthusiast’s guide to Cognac

—Christian

For the record, I’ve been enjoying Cognac ever since listening a certain Master P song about Hennessey a few too many times in college. It has all the wonderful characteristics of whiskey: strong, rich, delightfully long lasting flavor; a warm, buttery feel in the mouth and belly; lots of badass pop culture references. But Cognac takes it to a different level. The smell of cognac is overpowering and each brand is different. Because it is fermented from wine, there is none of the dryness that grain alcohol tends to take on. And the broadness of flavor is unparalleled by all but the finest of other distillates.

In our ruthless (trembling) pursuit of knowledge, your humble Enthusiasts recently attended the The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail’s Cognac tasting class—in large part because we were sure our $20 admission fee was going to be a great value from a purely liquid standpoint. But little did we know how much more there is to Cognac than we had originally assumed. Here is what the remarkable fellows from Beverage Alcohol Resource (Steve Olson, Andy Seymour and Dale DeGroff) taught us that magical night we spent in the Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts.

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It turns out, Cognac was actually one of (if not the) first distilled liquors ever to be produced for export. Back in the 1500s, sailors would come to the region to pick up salt—a hot commodity at that time—which Cognac was lousy with. While there, the sailors would also purchase what was then known as eaux-de-vie (water of life)—essentially liquor that had been boiled down from the wines of the region. Then, when they ran out of beer on the boats, they inevitably ended up breaking into the ol’ eaux, and a market was born.

The real breakthrough came when the sailors started to realize that the life water got better the longer it sat in the oak casks that French sold it in (incidentally, Cognac not only has great grapes and salt, its also got fantastic oak trees for barrel making). Eventually, someone back on the mainland got to thinking and took the whole operation of cooking the wine, barreling it and letting it sit around for a few years in-house. Somewhere in there they also invented the modern distillation techniques which all Apalachian hillbillies are taught in first grade. But by at this point your humble Enthusiast had downed a couple Cognac punches and the details get a little hazy. (Incidentally, the story of punch as a cocktail is very interesting, but we’ll save that for another night.)

The Cognac industry as we know it got off the ground in the 1600s and became big business by the the late 1700s. Four houses dominate 90% of the market, and I am sure you’ll recognize their names: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin. The other 10% is produced by 200-odd small batch blenders, which brings us to the next interesting point. Cognac is not produced from start to finish by the same people. There are actually five stages which are kept largely autonomous:

1) Grape growing
2) Wine making
3) Distilling
4) Aging
5) Blending

The blenders are the superstars. These guys are employed by the houses and they basically take dozens of barrels of variously aged raw Cognac spirits and sample the different properties of each to find the exact combination that best fits their house’s unique taste. There are standardized age classifications that most of you will recognize and each pertains to the youngest distilate used in the blend (all Cognacs are blends): V.S. is the youngest, clocking in at a 2-year minimum; V.S.O.P. is in the middle, with a minimum of 4 years pre-blend; and X.O. requires a 6-year minimum. All that said, the ish we get here in America is typically a lot older than these minimums (V.S. = 4-6yrs, V.S.O.P = 6-8yrs and X.O. = 15-20yrs—take that, rest of the world!). Some of the crazy shit, the shit you can’t buy in the store, the shit you need to know somebody to a hold of get has been sitting in glass jars under the streets of Cognac for hundreds of years. Yeah, hundreds. If that’s not the ballerist shit ever, I don’t know what is.

But I digress. After an amazing regaling of Cognac’s history we were ready for the tasting! We started at a merger V.S. and worked our way up to an X.O., savoring every drop (at least I did—spitting is for designated drivers). From what I can recall, the older it gets, the crisper the flavor, but also the longer it lasts. Again, this is where Cognac really sets itself apart. You can taste it for days. A couple sips and the warm ambrosia lingers on your tongue and around you mouth pretty much until you sully it with something else.

Class ended with a deeper dive into the history (and naturally, consumption) of two more Cognac-based cocktails: the Crusta (which has evolved into the Sidecar) and a finale of the Cognac Summit (an amazing drink created during the 2009 International Congac Summit that incorporates ginger, lemonade, cucumber peel and, of course, Cognac). At this point, too tipsy to engage in a meaningful discussion with the organizer, I did manage to ask my final unanswered question; what’s the deal with Louis XIII? (For those not familiar, it’s the shit that costs $250 a glass at bars that actually serve it). The answer: mostly the bottle, which is made of super fancy crystal or something. The dude that was running the class recommended seeking out a less frilly option I can’t remember the name of that he profusely explained was much better tasting and only cost a couple hundred a bottle.

Final verdict? Cognac is awesome for myriad reasons. In fact, I think I have another glass right now…

Fancy Cognac picture courtesy of andreasnilsson1976, flickr.

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